My Mercedes makes light work of the dusty gravel road that
snakes its way through the settlement of Pretty Gully. In January 1941, my
mother and I first made the same journey in a rattly old 1932 Chevy ute which
carried our worldly belongings to our new place of abode – a bark and tent
shanty which my dear father had lovingly put together to house his little family
after securing his first real permanent job since returning from the World War
One in 1919.
Easing the Benz to the side of the road, I alight and look
out upon the familiar scene that I once loved and cherished. I tread ground that
I trod 60 years before, goaded by that relentless passion that takes many people
to far-off places – the cherished memories of childhood.
There is virtually nothing left of our home and its
surrounds except the bushfire-blackened remains of a stout gatepost from which
my father swung a handsome gate. When Dad built something he did it properly,
and took great pride in it. I stand for a while on the exact spot where my
bedroom was positioned. I close my eyes and try to recreate the vision of
Veronica, the young Aboriginal girl as it came to me so long ago.
A few yards away, a rusty piece of iron attracts my
attention. A friendly log fire once continuously burned here. I lift the article
from the charcoal-encrusted soil to reveal the lid of a cast-iron camp oven in
which my mother cooked so many delicious dampers. I feel sorry for anyone who
hasn’t tasted hot damper baked in a camp oven and smeared with butter.
The tree under which our shower cubicle stood is now old
and gnarled. The limb on which was suspended the shower bucket rotted long ago
and the deep mineshaft over which our toilet was erected has caved in and is now
no more than a slight depression in the ground.
Moving further down the hill, a mature blackout, a towering
giant reaching 30 metres with a girth of three metres, confronts me like a
spirit from the past. I, as a tearful little boy, lovingly planted its tiny
seedling over the grave of a much-loved fox terrier. The comforting words of my
loving father come back to me.
“While ever this tree lives, Mick, our little friend will
never be dead!” My father always addressed me as Mick and the nickname stuck for
That which moves me most, causing me to choke back the
emotional lump in my throat, is a faint outline in the grass skirting Pretty
Gully and being swallowed by the blady grass and bracken fern. The remnant of an
extremely cleverly engineered project and the object of my boyish fascination –
‘The Race’. The little artificial watercourse that was the life-giving artery of
the goldfield. How I would love to once again skip along its bubbling length and
experience the joy of being at one with nature, free and uninhibited.
Through the mist of time, I can visualise the form of Old
Harry, my old Aboriginal friend and mentor, the last keeper of ‘The Race’. If he
materialised now, I am sure I would automatically drop everything, fall into
line and blindly follow him.
Since my sad departure from this Garden of Eden in 1943, I
have had the advantages of a modern university education, but even that cannot
compare with the practical tutelage I received from my Aboriginal friends so
long ago. My only regret is that I was much too young to fully comprehend the
significance of their teaching, and them as people.
I never regularly attended a primary school for any length
of time except for the last three months of 1943, but I’m sure I missed out on
nothing. My early education was free of frustration and unrestrained by
stringent curricula, as opposed to that of being cooped up in a stuffy classroom
and having the three ‘Rs’ drummed into one, often by rote and meaningless
The winds of time have engulfed Pretty Gully, as they have
changed everything else. No longer is the freedom of the bush open to all. Most
of this area has been split up into hobby farms, and the alternate culture now
jealously guards its domain and the impromptu visitor is not welcome. Not that I
blame the new occupants because the casual visitor can be cruel and destructive
on the environment – just as he was 60 years ago and all through our short
Amid the heartlessness, brutality and greed of those who
would destroy nature arose men like my father who championed the cause of
protection and restoration. In those days, conservation, as applied to nature,
was not a part of the vocabulary, let alone government policy.
My father was a wonderful man. He was of ordinary bushman
stock, and as such was honest and caring. I both loved and respected him, and
looking back, every worthwhile thing I have ever accomplished was motivated by
Points to note
The Big Shot is a true story based on my life as a
child growing up in the bush. The characters were real people but names have
been changed to comply with Aboriginal custom which forbids the use of names of
- part sample
I was a child of the Great Depression, and like thousands
of families in those times, we had to be on the move so that Dad could avail
himself of the few jobs that were going. Dad was a Gallipoli veteran and was
severely gassed on the Western Front in France. He was a member of the Light
Horse before the war, and like many other ill-informed souls, answered the call
and went to the other side of the world to fight a war without knowing what it
was all about. He returned a hero, but the heroism was short lived in a world of
“dog eat dog” where all the dogs were hungry.
I was born in 1930 in a humble little slab hut in the bush
near a place called Mororo near Lismore in Northern New South Wales.
Mum went into labour with me just before midnight, and it
was not a simple birth. Dad rode to our nearest neighbour, a couple of miles
away, and the lady came over to assist Mum who by this time had been in labour
for quite a few hours. In desperation, she sprinkled some pepper up Mum’s nose
to make her sneeze. This action did the trick and after several frantic
expulsions, I was delivered into the world. Two days later, a bush nurse came
and “tidied things up”.
People weren’t any tougher in those days than they are now,
except in bygone years one only heard of the success stories. In the privation
of the bush, away from adequate medical facilities, the unborn fetus lived
providing nothing went wrong. The lack of adequate post-natal care also claimed
the lives of many infants. It was not unusual in those days to record an infant
death with the nearest police or Justice of the Peace, then simply inter the
little one in a suitable plot near the house. Scattered across the wilderness of
the bush, there are many tiny unmarked graves where lie buried the remains of
loved infants, at rest with the tears of sorrow and helplessness of those who
put them there.
Dad manufactured my first crib from a banana case. My
blanket was an ex-Army tunic. These tunics were the regular Army style, with the
four large pockets. They were left over from Army supplies, dyed black and were
given to recipients of the dole. These were recognised as the badge of the dole
man. Dad refused to wear it, and treated it with disdain.
“I wore this bloody thing for four years in defence of this
country in the mud and shit of battle. I will not wear it here.”
Dad was not an advocate of war. He had a job driving
bullocks and cutting timber logs for a miserable old Scrooge, who not only owned
the land where we lived, but also the bullocks, wagon, sawmill and a general
store. As a part of the deal for the job, we had to buy our supplies at the
store. He used to settle every month, and by coincidence, income would exactly
balance expenditure. For three years, Dad worked like a slave for a meagre dole
of basic rations. This scanty fare was supplemented by some homegrown
vegetables, a few chooks and Dad’s skill as a marksman with a .303 rifle.
Kangaroo meat always graced our table.
Few people have a true realisation of how crook things were
in the Thirties. I witnessed a constant stream of men – young and old – walking
the roads, unable to get work. Single men could not draw the dole for two weeks
in succession in the same town. They had to move on to the next. The roads were
full of good men, broken in body and spirit; disillusioned men like my father
who had fought for a better world – or so he was led to believe. Dad’s greatest
sorrow was that he took his revered horse to war and had to shoot it in the
desert sands of a foreign country. The authorities would not allow the soldiers
to bring their beloved mounts home. Nor were they compensated.
We had a horse and sulky in which we travelled to the
little store at Chatsworth Island about 10 kilometres distant, once a week to
get supplies. Mum was a good practical woman in the bush and could handle horses
The one great disadvantage of living in isolation was
loneliness, especially where women were concerned. In those days, large retail
businesses in the capital cities printed catalogues of their wares complete with
prices. Mum loved getting her hands on such treasures. She would pour over them
for hours on end, even though she could never afford the articles advertised.
Other publications offered goods in exchange for labels
from certain products such as Bushells Tea, Fountain baking powder and various
brands of soap. Mum carefully saved all of these and from time to time was
rewarded with tea towels, cutlery and other simple household items through the